Archives for March 2012

Care Counts

After all the exceptional warmth of the last few days, today was a shock to the system as it returned to a more-normal-for-the-time-of-year fairly cold and resolutely grey.

Riding a route that took in Chinnor, Watlington and across to Wallingford, I realised I’d forgotten how rural a lot of South Oxfordshire is. That’s somehow surprising. I guess I think of it as ‘home counties’ and thus over-crowded and over-developed. It wasn’t overly attractive in the dull light of the day but its potential appeal was obvious. Didcot power station on the horizon would always be hard to ignore but whether it merits ignoring is a moot point anyway.

Presumably because of its more rural nature, there wasn’t anywhere near the same amount of litter on the verges that you get on the roads I ride more often. That said, in a few places today, on roads closer to Reading, I saw there’d been a concerted litter-picking effort recently – whether by Councils or individuals I can’t say. It’s grim and depressing that it’s necessary; that it’s done is very much appreciated.

And no, that’s not just some selfish middle-aged, middle-class desire to have ‘nice scenery’ to ride through. There have been enough academic studies that demonstrate a visibly neglected environment will spiral downwards. A downward spiral benefits no-one, of any age, class, affluence, background, race, creed … Care counts.

It’s interesting that I feel I have to say that. I’m not quite sure why I do feel that caring for a locale has to be justified; it shouldn’t need to be. I’m not sure what vested interests would lie behind attacking that attitude. There would be some.

Another striking aspect of the route between Chinnor and Wallingford was that there were probably more cyclists about than cars. If not, it was a close-run thing. I guess, too, that I’d forgotten how big a ‘cycling city’ Oxford is, and the territory I was in is in easy reach for anyone looking for a decent route out of the city, and good to ride. Add in high petrol prices and a government / media inspired frenzy about potential fuel shortages combining to make motorists less inclined to take to the roads, and bike riding’s golden age continues.

For all the general lack of traffic, Wallingford looked busy enough, healthy enough, as I went through the centre. The market seemed busy and there were plenty of shoppers about. In recent years I’ve been to many market towns that have seemed to be faring a lot worse.

Water, Water

For reasons various and tedious, I was out today without any water. It’s unseasonally warm. Fortunately I was out on a fixed wheel bike with just time for a short ride so it wasn’t a big deal.

Coming in to Emmer Green, my thirst and the water tower combined to remind me of the looming drought. There’s been hardly any rain for ages and there’s none forecast either. Apparently other parts of Europe are even more parched, already.

The Emmer Green Water Tower

Water, Water, Up A Tower

It doesn’t bode well.

Water, by and large, is something we take for granted. This is England – the land of wet summers and wetter winters. It’s hard to switch from a normality of viewing water as something plentiful and ‘just there’ to a new context where it’s something to be conserved. That’s not helped when water leaks aren’t fixed by the self-same company that’s telling us all to have shorter showers or whatever. There’s a major leak on Kidmore End Road that’s been there for weeks now. Yes, quite possibly there are valid reasons for it not being fixed and yes, quite possibly the amount leaked is still small beer in comparison to the amount to be saved by every householder spending a couple of minutes less time in the shower. That’s to miss the point though. If Thames Water, the responsible company, want us to respond to their exhortations to save water, they have to be seen to be treating it as precious themselves. Perceptions matter.


Riding around the Winkfield Row, Maiden’s Green area, getting towards Windsor, there are plenty of houses that you can readily imagine belong to city types – obviously expensive, near to London, ‘nice’ area. Fine, it makes for a decent area to cycle around too – during weekday daytimes it’s amazingly quiet.

What it made me wonder about though, was about the character types of the people who own them.

The media are making a thing at the moment about emails purportedly written by Syrian President Assad and his wife which, if they’re true, seem to demonstrate very well callousness and gross self-indulgence on the part of the pair of them. In a nutshell, she’s shopping for shoes at nearly £4,000 a pair while their country seems to be sliding towards civil war. This is a woman Vogue once called the ‘freshest and most magnetic of first ladies’; Paris Match said she was a ‘ray of light’. In general the West seems to have liked to think of her as a reformer because she grew up in Acton and worked as an investment banker for JP Morgan.

What I found myself considering was whether, in fact, her career as an investment banker might instead suggest that she’s now acting true to type. I can’t think of anything about anything connected with the absolutely phenomenal bail-out of the banking industry that has brought to light any meaningful contrition on the part of bankers or has shown them to be concerned, socially aware and community-minded citizens. I can’t help but suspect President Assad’s wife is merely acting true to character, and that if there had been a clearer evaluation of the character seemingly needed to be a banker, there wouldn’t have been any false hopes about her. Nor would so much trust have been placed in bankers.

I’m not saying the character type is inherently bad. Maybe it’s needed in that professional role. All I’m saying is that that character type probably doesn’t lend itself to issues of social justice and reform, and it may well be naive to think otherwise.

And talking of types, I fail to understand why Councils employ staff who are the type of person to spend money on so-called anti-skid road surfaces when a short drive around pretty well any locale will find any number of instances where these surfaces have deteriorated to leave a pitted, pot-holed road that results in less traction for motorists and thus more danger for all road users. The net result is that they’re spending money and doing their constituents no favours. At the same time, they’re closing services like libraries on the grounds of saving money, which is also doing their constituents no favours. It makes no sense.

Brain Bugs

I don’t think I have particularly large or ‘jug’ ears but today they were acting as very effective bug catchers. If, however long down the line, they find me going gaga and discover my brain’s being munched on by bugs, today’s the day they set-up home. I’ve never known them to be quite so irritating. Yeah, wildlife might be wonderful and yeah, we probably all ought to learn that the insects are just as valuable and marvellous as the big mammals and what-have-you, but there are limits to my enthusiasm.

Plenty of cyclists out today and yesterday; as normal the Friday riders are friendlier than the Saturday ones. Strange but true – so much for the weekends being a time of relaxation.

That’s also fairly true of drivers – weekdays outside of rush hour will generally entail encounters with more considerate motorists than the weekends. If you can tolerate a crude stereotype, I’d advise being particularly wary of slightly pudgy, often quite pale males in BMW never-been-dirty 4WDs with kids in the passenger seats on a weekend day. Mother is rarely there – presumably she’s having some ‘me time’ and he’s having some ‘quality time’ with the sprogs after a week in an office somewhere. Somewhere, presumably, that pays him well but costs him dear. If you want a safe bet, it’s that he’ll be looking very sour about it and driving distractedly, unhappily.

It’s easy to sneer but that’s not appropriate. Pity is probably a more suitable reaction; that and the hope that they can somehow get out of that rut. It can’t be nice for anyone involved.

All the cyclists looked able, experienced and happy enough on their bikes. That applies just as much to the quite elderly lady on a regular ‘sit up and beg’ bike as the lycra-wearing blokes on road or mountain bikes. I came across one group of po-faced club riders who doubtless wouldn’t deign to acknowledge anyone at all, but everyone else was cheery – a mood buoyed up by the weather of course. I’m not misty eyed and romantic about it and ‘community’ is a word that’s knackered and meaningless these days, but I think it’s a positive thing if new riders feel welcomed by more experienced ones.

I don’t know if cycling is in any way intimidating to a newcomer and, obviously enough, I can’t put myself in that position. I fear it might be because it can easily seem to be getting more and more technical and there’s far more kit and clobber to go with it than there ever used to be. If there are barriers to riding, those with experience need to work to either demolish them or help others over them.

Enough Is Enough

It was almost warm enough for shorts today; nothing’s really warmed up yet but the temperature was in the high 60s. In the shade it’s cooler than it would be if it were a summer day, but even so, that’s nicely warm. What was perhaps more notable is the dryness; a couple of times today I was tasting dust after lorries passed me. It seems a bit early for that. The prospect of drought gets ever more real.

Twice today, near Christmas Common and then on the outskirts of Henley, the birds that caught my eye were buzzards rather than red kites; they’re a very distinctive shape and they often seem to be flying higher than the kites do. In a first for me, the kites near Stonor caught me out by calling their distinctive call but being nowhere to be seen – until I noticed three of them on the ground, several yards apart in a field. I’ve never before been aware of them calling to each other when they’re on the ground.

I guess because of the combination of the foliage not being out much yet but the weather being good enough to encourage looking around, today I noticed a few obviously expensive houses that I’d either not seen before or hadn’t really registered. Most of them are the old stately pile type of place but not all – there are some more modern ones in amongst them. What I wasn’t sure about was how they made me feel.

Jealous? Not really. Angry? No, again not really. Some of them will probably be the result of old money being handed down. So it goes – that’s not going to change overnight. Some will probably be owned by people who’ve made a packet by doing something anyone would call honest and decent. I’m not going to carp at that. And some, probably, will be owned by grotty, greedy individuals who’ve climbed the greasy pole grabbing whatever they can, crapping on anyone they can, and not giving a damn along the way, and I wouldn’t want to be like that.

And there’s the question of sufficiency too. Even if I was behaving thoroughly decently throughout, I don’t want to put the time in to earn more to just buy more – more rooms, more garden or whatever. I’ve a roof over my head already. It’s a long way from great but it’s sufficient. I’d rather be able to take advantage of a decent day like today, go for a bike ride and pass the gates of these places than be bogged down in earning more money to buy a ‘better’ house.

I think I’m just becoming more aware that time is far too finite to waste on acquiring possessions I don’t really need. I’m not preaching a life of sack cloth and ashes – far from it. I’ve plenty of luxuries in my life, by any sane measure. I hope I know what constitutes enough though, and I can’t help but suspect a lot of people would ultimately benefit – be happier – if they assessed what’s sufficient more rigorously. It’s easy to get sucked in to buying more for buying more’s sake.

Eco Systems

Spring is ‘officially’ here, as if that means anything. If spring is plants budding, animals pairing off and so on, that’s been going on for a while now.

Riding past Clay Copse in Caversham / Emmer Green, I heard the first woodpecker of the year, hammering away. I did think that signified nest building but that’s not the case, or so I’m told. Rather, it’s about dislodging insects under the bark. Nevertheless, that’s still the first one I’ve heard this year.

A short while later, going along the lane from Henley towards Aston, a large adult red kite dropped down and landed in the field between the lane and the river, to then just sit there. What made that an odd sight is the field also had – and often has – a fair smattering of swans in it. Red kites and swans make unlikely companions. Well, I say that but I don’t actually know if that’s true. They’re not going to be competitors for food or territories, so perhaps they’re very happy to co-exist in close proximity.

The kites really could be called ‘common kites’ these days – they’ve been an interesting and noticeable success story in recent years. There must be numerous factors at work – not least a reduction in chemicals on the land, meaning their food is less likely to be poisoned, and less of a tendency to shoot them. I think there’s a broader understanding that they’re by-and-large scavengers and not predators.

Leaving aside the misguided people who actively feed them, their success is probably also due to the amount of carrion there is to scavenge. Road-kill is plentiful and it’s not for nothing that they’re always to be seen checking-out the roads and verges.

I suppose it’s an eco-system of sorts. Nature’s nothing if not adaptable.